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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fiction Techniques for Non-fiction Writers—Write Dialogue Correctly


I got my start as a freelance writer, primarily publishing non-fiction articles for print and online. And I was prolific, one year I had over 700 articles published. But I’d always thought I’d end up writing novels. Because of that, I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to write fiction. Those years of learning how to tell a good story did more than just prepared me to write fiction, they also enabled me to become a much better non-fiction writer.

In this new series, I’ll be sharing some of these fiction techniques that can also help you improve as a non-fiction writer.

Today I’m going to start by teaching you to Write Dialogue Correctly. As I travel and teach at writing conferences across the country I’m amazed at the number of non-fiction writers who have no idea how to correctly write dialogue. Many non-fiction works include dialogue, and this is one of the basics you must master as you advance your writing career.

Tips and Techniques for Writing Dialogue Correctly

Every time the speaker changes, you start a new paragraph. Those who’ve never written dialogue before often try to follow the standard rules when it comes to paragraphs. All that flies out the window, when you’re writing dialogue.

Example:
Incorrect:
“I can’t stand the way Suzanne drives,” Sheila said. Beth nodded. “Me either. It gives me nightmares to think about riding anywhere with her.”

Correct:
“I can’t stand the way Suzanne drives,” Shelia said.

Beth nodded. “Me either. It gives me nightmares to think about riding anywhere with her.”

Now let’s look at the correct way to punctuate dialogue.
All punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.
Speaker tags (like the word said) are considered part of the sentence and are not capitalized.

Example:
Incorrect:
“What do you want”? She asked.

Correct:
“What do you want?” she asked.

Unless you’re asking a question, the words in quotes end in a comma (as opposed to a period), IF you use a speaker tag. (I’ll explain the difference between a speaker tag and a speaker beat in a moment.)

Example:
Incorrect:
“I can’t believe you did that.” She said.

Correct:
“I can’t believe you did that,” she said.

Tags and Beats
A speaker tag is a description of how the words were spoken and who spoke them, like said and asked.

Example:
“I can’t believe you did that,” said Susan.

It’s important to keep speaker tags simple. Don’t pull out your thesaurus to find synonyms for said. Said, or asked, is almost invisible and the reader just skims over it, uninterrupted. There are two major problems when you use other words instead of said.

First, it’s distracting. The reader hesitates, needing time to apply the correct definition of the tag you used.

Example:
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he prevaricated.

Second, you can easily fall into the trap of telling your story through the tags instead of the dialogue, especially if you add an adverb into the sentence. You want to make sure that the important things happen inside the quotes.

Example:
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered darkly.

A speaker beat is a description of what the character is doing or saying. It’s contained in the same paragraph as the words that are spoken, and this is how the reader knows who’s talking.

Example:
I can’t believe you did that.” Susan crossed her arms and frowned.

A beat or a tag can come before or after the spoken lines. Just be sure it makes sense where you put the beat. Some words are spoken as a reaction to an action, so in that case it wouldn’t make sense for them to precede the action.

Example:
Susan jumped and placed her hand on her chest. “You scared me. I didn’t know you were there.”

A speaker beat can also show us what he character’s feeling, unlike a tag, which just tells us.

Example:
Telling (incorrectly using a speaker tag)
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered darkly.

Showing (correctly using a speaker beat)
Simon looked down and dug the toe of his shoe into the dirt. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Another Common Mistake
Beginning writers sometimes get confused about whether a short phrase is a speaker beat or a speaker tag. One I see over and over again is she smiled. She smiled is a beat, not a tag. The easiest way to tell the difference is to ask yourself if the can smile (or laugh or whatever) the words. You can’t smile words so you know to punctuate it as a separate sentence.

Example:
Incorrect
“I like you,” Angela smiled.

Correct
“I like you.” Angela smiled.

I’d like to give you a chance to ask questions about dialogue and to share things that irritate you when you read dialogue. Leave your comments in the section below.

Don’t forget to join the conversation!
Blessings,
Edie

14 comments:

  1. Bless you and your perfect timing! Ever since BRMCWC, I've been working to include dialogue into my memoir correctly. This is a perfect resource for me to print out and keep by my laptop.

    Thanks again ... you're the best!

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    1. Robin, I'm so glad this came at a time to help! Thanks so much for stopping by, blessings, E

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  2. I can see how the speaker beats are more effective than tags in showing what a scene looks like. Is there a time, or circumstance when it's better to use a tag instead of a beat?

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    1. Ellen, great question! This is the source of some debate in our industry. The old school thought is that it's good to throw a ' be said' into the dialogue for variation, but all the editors I've spoken with encourage writers to use only beats or at least keep the tags to a bare minimum.

      One word of warning, be careful that the beats move the story forward and give the reader info about what's happening. Just throwing in an action beat without good reason can make your dialogue sound stiff.

      I hope this helps, Blessings, E

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  3. As you pointed out, two different speakers get two separate paragraphs. But what about including another person's action in a speaker's paragraph? For example:

    "Stop right there!" The cop pointed his gun at the thief. The thief hesitated. Gun shaking, the cop yelled louder. "Stop or I'll shoot."

    Or should that be three separate paragraphs?

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    Replies
    1. Steph, another great question! What I outlined in the post is the basics of dialogue. Your example is more advanced and is done correctly. It should all be contained in one paragraph.

      If the thief had interjected anything, then that would have necessitated a new paragraph for what the thief said, then another new paragraph when the cop continued speaking.

      Thanks so much for taking time to comment! Blessings, E

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  4. Always good to review these rules! Thanks Edie!

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  5. Edie,

    I write a lot of feature articles, which fall into the non-fiction category. It's been my observation that non-fiction requires heavier attribution, since we're dealing with quotes rather than dialogue. Sometimes, though,the "he said, she said," seems a bit redundant. If the alternative is using interruptive attributions (tags), is it still better to stick to "said"? Usually I'll use the individual's name, then use "he" or "she" if I quote him again in the same paragraph, or alternate the subject's name with "he". I'd like to hear your thoughts.

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  6. Thanks for this helpful tips! As you know, a lot of my devotions have dialogue in them especially when I'm telling a story to illistrate a point. Do they work in that as well? Love you!

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  7. Edie, I love this post. I think I'm going to really get a lot out of this series. One question though. Will these steps work in the devotions I write since a lot of them have dialogue when I'm telling a story to illistrate a point? Love you!

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  8. Another recommendation/suggestion I would give is to make sure you mix it up with the tags and beats, or neither. Sometimes it's clear who's talking - especially if it's one-on-one - and you don't want the dialogue to get bogged down in tags and beats. Make sure there's variety. I recently judged a writing contest and I could tell one of the entrants had been told not to use tags. Whenever there was a lengthy back-and-forth conversation, it would be several sentences in a row of dialogue-beat, dialogue-beat, dialogue-beat, which quickly felt sing-song-y and tiring and distracting. Even a beat-dialogue thrown in would have been a nice change of pace. Still, you don't have to have someone doing something every time they speak.

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  9. When I was writing more non-fiction, using fiction techniques resulted in a dramatic increase in acceptances. The practice helped me when I switched gears to fiction.

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  10. Perfect timing and very helpful, Edie. :)

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  11. Edie, Thank you for sharing these. Great review! Can't wait to read more!

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